Thursday, 28 February 2013

Tito sailed the ocean black

As an old romantic brought up under the shadow of the Moon missions, I can’t but warm to Dennis Tito’s bonkers project to send a middle-aged couple to Mars. Clearly it’s entirely impossible, and if they ever set off they are most unlikely to come home safely. But I hope they don’t let that put them off.

It reminds me of Columbus. The point about Columbus is not that he thought the world was round. (Everyone knew that.) Rather, he was badly wrong about the world’s size. The best astronomers of the age had calculated the world’s total size and got it more or less right. So they knew that reaching Asia from Europe by sailing west was an impossibly long way: as indeed it is. No fifteenth-century ship could have managed an open-water voyage of that length.

The point is, the sceptics who told Columbus his voyage was impossible were right. It was. But what neither he, nor they, nor anyone else expected was that he would bump into another continent en route.

I am not suggesting that the Tito mission will stumble on a previously undiscovered planet. But I am suggesting that when you attempt the impossible, you are courting not only disaster, but also serendipity. When you stray off the reservation, unexpected things happen.

And who knows? They may, just conceivably, pull it off.

1 comment:

  1. I remember you telling me that about Columbus many years ago when that dreadful film with Gerard Depardieu came out!